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Jake HEGGIE (b. 1961)
Unexpected Shadows
The Breaking Waves (2011): Music [2:58]
The Work at Hand (2015) [18:39]
If I Were You (2019): “Ice Cube Aria: I don’t have to do a thing” [3:28]
Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian (2015) [15:32]
Of Gods & Cats (1996) [6:29]
Statuesque (2005) [19:23]
Jamie Barton (mezzo)
Jake Heggie (piano)
Matt Haimovitz (cello)
rec. 2019, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, USA
Notes and text in English
PENTATONE PTC5186836 [66:40]

Jake Heggie’s first opera, Dead Man Walking, tells a tale of murder, of capital punishment, and of redemption. Dead Man Walking – the title, at least, may well be familiar to those still to encounter Heggie’s work – has been produced widely throughout the world, and several further operas have followed. Here, the composer accompanies Jamie Barton in a selection of songs, a form to which he has also made an extensive and significant contribution.

Let me say at once that I have struggled to enjoy this music. This is in no way a reflection of the performances. Jamie Barton is quite extraordinary, and her commitment to these songs is unquestionable. The texts of all the songs are given in the booklet, but they are hardly necessary as you can hear every word, quite something given the range of vocal production these songs demand. From the depths of her voice to the occasional foray into the stratosphere, Barton is in complete control. Sometimes she is required to whisper, occasionally to shriek, but her voice retains its character and beauty at all times. Heggie is clearly a pianist of the first rank, and he is totally at one with a singer with whom he performs regularly. His style errs toward the percussive; when the score asks for a fortissimo he is not found wanting. The recording is excellent, with perfect balance between the performers, and the informative booklet carries essays by both artists, in addition to those texts.

The recital begins well. A four-note figure in ‘Music’ implants itself pitilessly in the brain. It is simple, but beautiful, and we do not resist. The song is an extract from the cycle The Breaking Waves, to words by Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book that was the inspiration for Dead Man Walking. An inmate on death row is transformed and enriched by music brought to him on a tape player. Most of the song is unaccompanied, and begins with that four-note tag. There is a daring melisma on the first syllable of the word ‘music’. Jamie Barton copes as beautifully with it as she is poised and sincere in the rest of the song.

Barton describes both herself and Heggie in the booklet as ‘die-hard’ feminists. The programme brings together ‘voices of powerful women represented in many of Jake’s songs and operas.’ The Work at Hand is a cycle of three songs to poetry by Laura Morefield that bear witness to her experiences following a cancer diagnosis at the age of 47. Bitterness and anger in the rapid music of the first song give way touchingly to tenderness as the poet lists the people important to her. It is a moment that reminds me of a similar list in Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Determination to see things through characterises the second poem, though anger again seems even more evident in the music. In the third song, following without a pause, resignation is portrayed in diatonic terms that contrast strongly with the chromatic dissonance of much of what has gone before. The work is scored for soprano, piano and cello, with the cello given equal importance to the voice. Matt Haimovitz is a most eloquent collaborator.

In the extract from the opera If I Were You, the ‘powerful woman’ is presumably Brittomara, the Devil, who, in blues-inflected phrases watches implacably as an ice cube melts away to nothing. She needs to do no more than this as she watches humanity. For Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian, Gene Scheer produced a text that ties four objects seen at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to the wives of four different United States presidents. The idea is neat and will please many listeners. We are witness, for example, to Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, ‘a landmark civil rights event’ enabled by Eleanor Roosevelt. The object in question is Anderson’s mink coat. I find that the four women all speak with the same voice, and when they evoke painful memories – Mary Todd Lincoln on the death of her son, or Jacqueline Kennedy’s return to the White House hours after her husband’s assassination – the music does not generate the requisite pathos.

The texts of the next set, Of Gods and Cats, are described as ‘parodies of religious allegories’, and the songs themselves as ‘fun’. Both descriptions are correct. The ‘fun’ element seems to come principally from the piano accompaniments, particularly in the first song where the composer knocks out a more than passable imitation of a cat padding about. But I can’t resist the feeling that the vocal lines would have served the words of the previous cycle equally well.

I hear more varied characterisation in Statuesque. Five women, in the form of their ‘iconic’ statues, are given voice in music that demonstrates greater variety of vocal line than elsewhere. The odd touch of popular idiom in the first song is attractive, though why it surfaces in a song about a Henry Moore statue is another question. One of Picasso’s muses is deftly characterised, and it may well be that others will not share my feeling that the humorous homage in bawdy vaudeville style to the Winged Victory of Samothrace (visible in the Louvre) rather misses its target.

William Hedley

Previous review: Mike Parr

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